Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1 September 1896 – 14 November 1977) was a Gaudiya Vaishnava teacher and the founder-acharya of the
International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as the "Hare Krishna Movement". His mission was to propagate Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a form of
Hinduism (a term which Bhaktivedanta Swami frequently denied) that had been taught to him by his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, throughout the world. Born Abhay
Charan De in Calcutta, he was educated at the prestigious local Scottish Church College. Before adopting the life of a pious renunciant (vanaprastha) in 1950, he was
married with children and owned a small pharmaceutical business. In 1959 he took a vow of renunciation (sannyasa) and started writing commentaries on Vaishnava
scriptures. In his later years, as a traveling Vaishnava monk, he became an influential communicator of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology to India and specifically to the West
through his leadership of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded in 1966. As the founder of ISKCON, he "emerged as a major figure of
the Western counterculture, initiating thousands of young Americans." Despite attacks from anti-cult groups, he received a favorable welcome from many religious
scholars, such as J. Stillson Judah, Harvey Cox, Larry Shinn and Thomas Hopkins, who praised Bhaktivedanta Swami's translations and defended the group against
distorted media images and misinterpretations. In respect to his achievements, religious leaders from other Gaudiya Vaishnava movements have also given him credit.
He has been described as a charismatic leader, in the sense used by sociologist Max Weber, as he was successful in acquiring followers in the United States, Europe,
India and elsewhere. After his death in 1977, ISKCON, the society he founded based on a type of Hindu Krishnaism using the Bhagavata Purana as a central scripture,
continued to grow and is respected in India, though there have been disputes about leadership among his followers.
Born on September 1, 1896, the day after Janmastami, one of the most important Vaishnava holidays, in a humble house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta, he was
named Abhay Charan, "one who is fearless, having taken shelter at Lord Krishna's feet." Since he was born on the day of Nandotsava ("the celebration of Nanda,"
Krishna's father, a traditional festival in honor of Krishna's birth) he was also called Nandulal. His parents, Sriman Gour Mohan De and Srimati Rajani De, were devout
Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu). In accordance with Bengali tradition, his mother had gone to the home of her parents for the delivery, and only a few days later Abhay
returned with parents to his home at 151 Harrison Road in Calcutta, where he was brought up and educated.
He received a European led education in the Scottish Church College. This school was well reputed among Bengalis; many Vaishnava families sent their sons there. The
professors, most of whom were Europeans, were known as sober, moral men, and it is believed that the students received a good education. The college was located in
north Calcutta, not far from Harrison Road where Abhoy's family lived. During his years in the college, Abhoy Charan De was a member of the English Society as well as
that of the Sanskrit Society, and it has been suggested that his education provided him a foundation for his future leadership. He graduated in 1920 with majors in
English, philosophy and economics. However he rejected his diploma in response to Gandhi's independence movement. His refusal to accept the diploma he had earned
was in protest of the British. He also wore the homespun cotton cloth the followers of Gandhi wore in support of home industry and protest of British rule in India.
In 1922, when Abhay Charan De first met his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, he was requested to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in
the English language. Later in 1932 Abhoy Charan De became a formally initiated disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta. In 1944, (from his front room at Sita Kanta Banerjee,
Calcutta), Abhoy Charan De started the publication called Back to Godhead, for which he acted as designer, publisher, editor, copy editor and distributor. He personally
designed the logo, an effulgent figure of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the upper left corner, with the motto: "Godhead is Light, Nescience is darkness" greeting the readers.
In his first magazine he wrote:
“ Under the circumstances since 1936 up to now, I was simply speculating whether I shall venture this difficult task and that without any means and capacity; but
as none have discouraged me, I have now taken courage to take up the work. ”
— A.C.Bhakivedanta Swami, Back to Godhead magazine(Vol.1, 1-4, 1944)
In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognised Abhoy Charan De's scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, (bhakti-vedānta) meaning "one who has realised that
devotional service to the Supreme Lord is the end of all knowledge" (with the words Bhakti, indicating devotion and Vedanta indicating conclusive knowledge).His later
well known name, Prabhupāda, is a Sanskrit title, literally meaning "he who has taken the shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord" where prabhu denotes "Lord", and pāda
means "taking shelter." Also, "at whose feet masters sit". This name was used as a respectful form of address by his disciples from late 1967 early 1968 onwards.
Previous to this, as with his early disciples, followers used to call him "Swamiji".
From 1950 onwards, Abhoy Charan Bhaktivedanta lived at the medieval Radha-Damodar mandir in the holy town of Vrindavan, where he began his commentary and
translation work of the Sanskrit work Bhagavata Purana. Of all notable Vrindavana's temples, the Radha-Damodara mandir had at the time the largest collection of
various copies of the original writings of the Six Gosvamis and their followers - more than two thousand separate manuscripts, many of them three hundred, some even
four hundred years old. His guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had always encouraged Bhaktivedanta Swami that "If you ever get money, print books", referring to the need
of literary presentation of the Vaishnava culture.
Keshavaji Gaudiya Matha was the place where Bhaktivedanta used to live, he had written and studied in the library of this building, here he edited the Gauḍīya Patrikā
magazine and this is the place where he donated the murti of Lord Chaitanya who stands on the altar beside the Deities of Radha Krishna (named Śrī Śrī Rādhā
Vinodavihārījī). During his visit in September 1959 he entered the doors of this matha dressed in white, as Abhoy Babu, but would be leaving dressed in saffron, a
sannyasi. He received the sannyasa name Swami (स्वामी Svāmi), not to be confused with the title Swami. In this matha, in Mathura Vrindavana, Abhoy Charan Bhaktivedanta
took Vaishnava renunciate vows,sannyasa, from his friend and godbrother Bhakti Prajnana Keshava, and following this he single-handedly published the first three
volumes covering seventeen chapters of the first book of Bhagavata Purana, filling three volumes of four hundred pages each with a detailed commentary. Introduction
to the first volume was a biographical sketch of Caitanya Mahāprabhu. He then left India, obtaining free passage on a freight ship called the Jaladuta, with the aim and a
hope of fulfilling his spiritual master's instruction to spread the message of Caitanya Mahaprabhu around the world. In his possession were a suitcase, an umbrella, a
supply of dry cereal, about eight dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books.
Mission to the West
A message from Jaladuta Diary Journal kept by Prabhupada. Between August 25, 1965 and August 30, 1965, the Jaladuta Journal falls silent for six days. On the seventh
day, August 31, the silence is broken with these simple words, “Passed over a great crisis on the struggle for life and death.”
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami sailed to the USA in 1965. His trip to the United States was not sponsored by any religious organization, nor was he met upon arrival by a
group of loyal followers. As he neared his destination on the ship, the Indian freighter Jaladuta, the enormity of his intended task weighed on him. On September 13 he
wrote in his diary, "Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krishna." On this occasion and on a number of others, Bhaktivedanta Swami, called on
Krsna for help in his native Bengali. Examining these compositions, academics regard them as "intimate records of his prayerful preparation for what lay ahead" and a
view on "how Bhaktivedanta Swami understood his own identity and mission."
“ I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me. But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You
bring me to this terrible place? How will I make them understand this message of Krishna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified and most fallen. Therefore I
am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own. ”
By journeying to America, he was attempting to fulfill the wish of his guru, possible only by the grace of "his dear Lord Krishna". It is in July 1966 "global missionary
Vaishnavism" was brought to the West by Bhaktivedanta Swami, "the soul agent", founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City.
Bhaktivedanta Swami spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. Since he was the Society's leader, his personality and management
were responsible for much of ISKCON's growth and the reach of his mission.
When it was suggested to Bhaktivedanta Swami at the time of founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1966 that a broader term "God
Consciousness" would be preferable to "Krishna Consciousness" in the title, he rejected this recommendation, suggesting that name Krishna includes all other forms and
concepts of God.
After a group of devotees and a temple had been established in New York another center was started in San Francisco in 1967. From here Bhaktivedanta Swami traveled
throughout America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.
One of 108 worldwide temples opened by Prabhupada by 1977, was dedicated to Krishna-Balarama in Vrindavana, India.
Once ISKCON was more established in America a small number of devotees from the San Francisco temple were sent to London, England. After a short time of being in
London they came into contact with The Beatles, of whom George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a significant time speaking with Bhaktivedanta Swami
and producing a record with members of the later London Radha Krsna Temple. Over the following years Bhaktivedanta Swami's continuing leadership role took him
around the world some several times setting up temples and communities in all of the major continents. By the time of his death in Vrindavan eleven years later in 1977,
ISKCON became a widely known expression of Vaishnavism on an international basis.
In the twelve years from his arrival in New York until his final days, he:
circled the globe fourteen times on lecture tours that took him to six continents
initiated many disciples, awarding sannyasa initiations.
introduced Vedic gurukul education to a Western audience
directed the founding of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which claims to be the world's largest publisher of ancient and classical Vaishnava religious texts
founded the religious colony New Vrindavan in West Virginia,
authored more than eighty books (with many available online) on Vedantic philosophy, religion, literature and culture (including four published originally in Bengali)
introduced international celebrations in the capitals of the world like that of Jagannatha processions
watched ISKCON grow to a confederation of more than 108 temples, various institutes and farm communities
The original ISKCON logo designed by Prabhupada before his death in 1977.
Through his mission, Bhaktivedanta Swami followed and communicated the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international
audience. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism this was viewed as the fulfillment of a long time mission to introduce Caitanya Mahaprabhu's teachings to the world.
In his discussion with a historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, Bhaktivedanta Swami is quoted as saying: "I have started this Krishna Conscious Movement among the
Indians and Americans and for the next ten thousand years it will increase."
Books and publishing
It is believed that Bhaktivedanta Swami's most significant contribution are his books. Within the final twenty years of his life Bhaktivedanta Swami translated over sixty
volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam) into the English language. For their authority, depth, and clarity, his books
have won praise from professors at colleges and universities like Harvard, Oxford, Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Oberlin, and Edinburgh, and his Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is
was published by Macmillan Publishers, in 1968 and unabridged edition in 1972, and is now available in over sixty languages around the world and some other books
by Bhaktivedanta Swami are available in over eighty different languages.
The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust was established in 1972 to publish his works, it has also published massively researched multivolume biography, Srila Prabhupada-
lilamrta, that in opinion of Larry Shinn will "certainly be one of the most complete records of the life and work of any modern religious figure". Prabhupada reminded his
devotees before his disappearance that he would live forever in his books, and through them would remain present as a spiritual master or guru.Bhaktivedanta Swami
had instilled in his followers an understanding of the importance of writing and publishing not only with regard to his works, but also their own initiatives. His early
disciples felt Prabhupada had given them Back To Godhead for their own writings from the very start.
A prominent Gaudiya Vaishnava figure, Shrivatsa Goswami, who as a young man had met Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1972, affirmed the significance of book publishing and
distribution in spreading the message of Caitanya in an interview with Steven Gelberg:
“ Making these Vaisnava texts available is one of Srila Prabhupada's greatest contributions. Apart from the masses, his books have also reached well into
academic circles and have spurred academic interest in the Chaitanya tradition ... The significance of making these texts available is not merely academic or cultural; it
is spiritual. ”
Bhaktivedanta Swami considered Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed to be empowered representatives of God, describing them within his writings as pioneers of the same
essential message of dedication to God with love and devotion.
“ "Actually, it doesn't matter – Krishna or Christ – the name is the same. The main point is to follow the injunctions of the Vedic scriptures that recommend
chanting the name of God in this age." ”
Other typical expression presents a different perspective, where Bhaktivedanta Swami would point out that "today I may be a Hindu, but tomorrow I may become a
Christian or Muslim. In this way faiths can be changed, but dharma" is a natural sequence, a natural occupation or a connection and it can not be changed, because it is
permanent, according to him. While ISKCON theology of personal god is close to Christian theology, both personal and monotheistic, being a preacher of bhakti and a
missionary he sometimes would add, that "already many Christians have tasted the nectar of divine love of the holy name and are dancing with karatalas (hand-cymbals)
and mridangas (drums)." Bhaktivedanta Swami's approach to modern knowledge is also seen in sectarian Orthodox Judaism, where the skills and technical knowledge of
modernity are encouraged, but the values rejected. Bhaktivedanta Swami stated "devotees should not be lazy, idle...we are not afraid to work. Whatever our engagement
is, by offering the result to Krishna we become Krishna conscious". Some of his representations are believed to affect women adversely and are male-centred, others are
tender and celebratory. Bhaktivedanta Swami himself taught a dualism of body and soul and that of the genders. Similar to many traditional religions he considered
sexuality and spirituality as conflicting opposites. However among some liberal male followers there is a positive recognition of Bhaktivedanta Swami's own example in
applying the spirit of the law according to time, place, person and circumstance, rather than literal tracing of the tradition.
In line with traditional Vaishnava theology, Bhaktivedanta Swami was critical of the monist philosophies of Hinduism representing the Gaudiya Vaishnava point of view
and often insulting the orthodox Vedanta adherents of monism with 'cruel words'. In the view of some, the Gaudiya-Vaishnava philosophy he followed is neither fully
dualistic nor monist (this is known as Achintya Bheda Abheda). As a school of thought, Gaudiya Vaishnavism has much more in common with the Dvaita, as opposed to
the Advaita schools.
Initially, Bhaktivedanta Swami began his public preaching mission in India. He founded the League of Devotees in Jhansi in 1953.
Following the establishment of temples and centres in the United States and Europe, Bhaktivedanta Swami returned to India in 1971, holding many public programs
which were well attended. From 1971 onwards, the movement became increasingly popular and spread throughout the country, Bhaktivedanta Swami was particularly
eager to see the progress at "the impressive temple project in" Mumbai which he and his disciples had fought very hard to establish, with large temples in Mayapur and
Vrindavan to follow in mid-1970s. To promote the vedic education system in modern Indian education structure, he introduced the chain of Gurukul in various part of
India. The Bhaktivedanta Gurukula (Vrindavan) is one of the most successful school in the list.
In 1996, the Government of India recognized Bhaktivedanta Swami's accomplishments by issuing a commemorative stamp in his honour as a part of Prabhupada
Speaking at the inauguration of ISKCON's cultural center in New Delhi on 5 April on occasion of Ramnavmi in 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then India's prime minister,
“ If the Bhagavad Gita, the holy text of the Hindu traditions, is printed in millions of copies and scores of languages and distributed in all nooks and corners of
the world, the credit for this great sacred service goes chiefly to ISKCON. For this accomplishment alone, Indians should be eternally grateful to the devoted spiritual
army of Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, and to his followers. . .
The arrival of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the United States in 1965 and the particular popularity his movement gained in a very short span of twelve years must
be regarded as one of the greatest spiritual events of the century.
A number of memorial samadhis or shrines to Bhaktivedanta Swami were constructed by the members of ISKCON in his remembrance, the largest of which are in
Mayapur, Vrindavan and at the larger sized temples in America. Prabhupada's Palace of Gold was designed and constructed by devotees of the New Vrindavan community
and dedicated on September 2, 1979. Back in 1972 it was intended to be simply a residence for Bhaktivedanta Swami, but over time the plans evolved into an ornate
marble and gold palace which is now visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims each year, visiting this centerpiece of the community strongly relying upon tourist trade.